All Saints/All Souls • Revelation 7:9–17 • 1 John 3:1–3 • Mt 5:1–12 • November 5, 2023
Today’s readings raise some questions about Divine justice. On one level, they seem to suggest that if we didn’t get what we deserve while alive, we’ll get it in the afterlife. I want to propose that if we look more closely, we’ll find a subtler concept of Divine justice, reward, and blessing.
Although scholars attribute the essence of the Beatitudes to the historical Jesus, that last beatitude originated in the early church in response to the concerns of the time. Even without being persecuted ourselves, we may resonate with a sense of deep insecurity. Much that we once took for granted is shifting under our feet. It would be easy to think of people living in more stable times and places as lucky, or to see as fortunate those most able to insulate themselves from danger and privation. In short, to think that happy and blessed are those who enjoy security and comfort…maybe with a little power and fame thrown in.
Jesus invites us to locate blessing in an entirely different direction: in the personal qualities that open us to authentic relationship with life, each other, and the Holy.
We are poor in spirit when we consciously rely on God, when we are not numbed by a comfortable living situation to our need for divine support and guidance. Maybe this is why Jesus said that trying to enter the realm of heaven in a state of plenty is like trying to thread a needle with a camel. Poverty of spirit relates to the Benedictine virtue of humility. It acknowledges that we are not ultimately in control and thus opens us to God’s grace.
All the blessed qualities reflect the commandments to love God and neighbor. To be pure in heart and hunger for righteousness is to seek integrity in ourselves and others. To be meek and merciful is to be gentle and compassionate. The qualities of seeking integrity and peace and being compassionate and gentle build communion among us and with the Holy One. This shared experience is the “reign of heaven” that opens to us when we choose these blessings of the soul ahead of the individualistic blessings of status, comfort, and power.
Why the blessing on those who mourn? I think because grieving requires a level of honesty. Poet David Whyte defines honesty as “a robust incarnation into the unknown unfolding vulnerability of existence.” I’ll say that again: “a robust incarnation into the unknown unfolding vulnerability of existence.” The effort to dodge that sense of vulnerability, he suggests, makes us subtly dishonest with ourselves and one another. I’d say that’s on a good day; on a bad day, we may actively lash out to avoid the feeling. When we have the courage to grieve, we are safer to be around. Once again, this is a quality that promotes humility and honest relationships with life and one another.
The final beatitude, the one added by the early church, acknowledges that embodying these qualities poses an implicit threat to the dominant culture of status and control—perhaps enough of a threat to provoke derision or even persecution from people committed to that culture. To persevere despite such attacks is honorable, a path forged by the prophets. It places us in a community motivated across the ages by something greater than worldly regard or security, a community motivated by fidelity to a vision of a better way to be. There is something eternal about this kind of fidelity. It reverberates.
This brings us to the reading from Revelation, which speaks of a “great ordeal” through which the people wearing white have come. I used to be mystified and repelled by the paradox of their washing their robes in the blood of the Crucified One, here called the Lamb. How could his blood cleanse? In part, this image has roots in Jewish symbolism. By representing life, which ultimately comes from God, blood stands for the power to create, including the power to make whole what is broken. So sprinkling with blood became a part of rituals of forgiveness and purification, a way of saying that God is making things whole again. The image also refers to the Passover lamb.
But beyond these references, I see a layer of meaning related to Jesus’ sharing, through the Crucifixion, in the human experience of undeserved suffering. By accepting this experience and voluntarily entering into it with us, Jesus removes the shame that is often attached to suffering by the culture of worldly success. His suffering washes away the shame of ours.
Through this lens, this passage from Revelation declares restoration of dignity to people who have been shamed and humiliated, much as the Beatitudes reaffirm the dignity of people and qualities that are often underestimated. Both passages locate our value not in what we have or receive or how we are seen or treated, but in who we are and how we live—in our souls.
In the same spirit, the letter from John affirms that regardless of how the world sees us, we are children of God. Blessing is more than meets the eye. It’s a state of relationship with the Holy.
My old friend Maria used to say, “We are souls.” I never asked her what she meant, but I sensed in her words a kind of longing for a Beyond that she intuited but couldn’t quite put her finger on. It’s as if she was saying that our ultimate home is more than what we can presently see and touch, that it has something to do with our yearning for deep communion and belonging. That longing is honored in the tradition of the communion of saints, the great river of souls who have gone before us—the ones close to us whom we miss, and the ones we know only by the ripples they left that have touched us. May we thank and bless these forerunners and invite them, along with the Holy One, to guide us in unfolding the qualities of our own souls as we seek to enter that communion of love where “all may be one.”